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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 13 August 2016
22 THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 13 AUGUST 2016 DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM Athens on the 15th – it’s all about whispers GERARD PAPASIMAKOPOULOS Look at tourist guides, whento and how-to articles about Greece and its summers, and Athens on the 15th of August is probably not going to come highly recommended. You might get Mykonos, some Crete, a dash of Santοrini, maybe a sprinkle of the wonders and beauty of the Ionian sea, but Athens? Not so much. The 15th of August in Athens is, however, probably one of the best kept secrets for well-informed urban travellers. Empty, quiet and sleepy, the very air of the place is different, unburdened by the constant rumble of car engines, the out of synch drumming of countless heels on pavements and the thick cloud of radio wave chatter and millions of everyday words and conversations, as they bounce feverishly around the cityscape. It is, truly, a city abandoned. The only living souls you're likely to see are perplexed tourists, scratching their heads as to why the city seems deserted, and the lumbering stray dogs of Syntagma square, as they slowly carry their bulk from shade to shade, trying to move as little as possible under the sweltering gaze of the August sun. The few shops that remain open on a day like this go through the motions at an almost island-like pace, servers visibly relaxed and laid back, not having to balance ten or so orders in their heads. Up and down Panepistimiou Avenue, one of the main roads that connect Syntagma Square with the rather more gritty Omonoia area, shops hang up small signs, handwritten or otherwise, informing customers that they'll be back sometime between the 16th and the 20th. It's a common saying on Greece: "Nothing happens in August." Athens on the 15th is a hat-tipping acknowledgment to just that. Having spent the last seven or eight summers in the city, the particular date is a huge favourite of mine. Riding the train into town, I try and pick a carriage that is utterly empty and concentrate on the clear sound of the rails rattling beneath my feet, only ever interrupted by an arrival announcement, when a station pulls into view. It's an exercise in urban silence of the highest order, an opportunity one seldom gets the chance to experience in a bustling city like Athens. Arriving at Syntagma metro station, I climb the escalators towards the exit and out onto the parliament square, where I'm greeted by the sun, so hot and bright it almost screams. While the heat is not to be taken lightly, the best way to experience a city in a state like this is to just decide to walk. To put one foot in front of the other, repeat the process for a good hour or so and take it all in. You could head towards Monastiraki, strolling down Ermou street, which is usually alive with shoppers on any other day but this one, or make your way to the paved walkway of Areopagitou. Wherever you go, just make sure you do it when the sun is up. Athens has a funny way of coming alive at night, even when most of its inhabitants are away on holiday. Empty or not, when the sun sets there will be plenty of bars that will open their doors, and as the music starts tumbling out of speakers and ice cubes jingle in glasses, the noise will return. Perhaps not as loud as it would normally, but return it will. No, the 15th of August in Athens is very much a morning exercise. Bright, sunny, empty and heart-warmingly lonely, it's a rare chance to listen to what an urban landscape has to say when its engines are off. For one day only, you can hear it whispering, not shouting like a concrete gorilla. For one day only, every breath you take is the loudest sound there is. To this day, I still remember meeting a guitar player in Athens, on the 15th of August back in 2006, playing his instrument on a deserted Ermou street, each note ringing out true, clean and undiluted by any other sound. It was halfway between a surf track and a lover's song, with the reverb cranked up high, sending the guitar sound soaring up the walls of the buildings and into the bright sky. When he took a break, he smiled at me and simply said: "This is my favourite day of the year."
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